From the August 1999 issue of Entrepreneur

No matter how important a change in one of your company policies might be, how you implement the new process is critical to whether your employees will accept it. "It's important your employees not feel something is being done to them that they have absolutely no choice about--whether or not that's actually the case," says Peggy Isaacson, president of Peggy Isaacson & Associates, a human resources consulting firm in Orlando, Florida. "How you make the announcement and schedule the change has a lot to do with how it will be accepted and embraced by your employees. Keep in mind, too, that people tend to be uncomfortable with change, even when it may be to their benefit. You want to implement new policies in ways that will make the changes as painless as possible."

Making an unwelcome change can result in low morale among your employees, a decline in productivity and even unnecessary turnover. "The primary keys are communication and time," says Isaacson. "Communicate with every affected employee so they understand exactly what you're doing, why you're doing it, and what the impact will be on them personally and on the company overall. Then, as you implement the new policy, allow enough time for people to get used to whatever is going to be different. During the transition period, encourage your employees to give you feedback. And be alert to signs of trouble: any general attitude shifts, perhaps increases in absenteeism or other signals that employees are dissatisfied."

The positive implementation of a policy actually begins with its development, says Greg Hally, 35, co-owner of Hally O'Toole Design, a full-service advertising agency in Salt Lake City. "Even though our employees don't ultimately make the [policy] decisions, they feel ownership because we involve them in the process," Hally says. Hally helps his employees understand what prompted the need for the policy, the reasoning that went into its creation, and what ideas were accepted and rejected before the policy was finalized. With this foundation, implementation is usually only a simple matter of relaying the final details.

Is it easier to make a decision on your own and announce it without discussion? Of course, says Hally, but that approach is more likely to result in disgruntled employees who don't feel like they're part of the team. Not only do Hally and his partner disagree with a dictatorial style of management, they also believe employee input helps create stronger, more effective policies. "We hope our people always feel comfortable enough that they can step up and offer something," says Hally. "They all come from different backgrounds, and that diversity can bring something to light that we wouldn't have thought of otherwise."

Hide The Keys!

Some employees may not be so qualified to take the driver's seat.

When you hand someone the keys to a company car or truck, how can you reduce the risk that they'll endanger life or property while they're driving?

Begin by setting a policy on driver qualifications and history. The first step is making sure drivers hold valid driver's licenses. Then decide what isn't acceptable in the way of violations and check the driving records of your employees. According to Deborah Jaeger of TML Information Services Inc., a company in Forest Hills, New York, that provides clients with access to motor-vehicle data, a typical policy may be that three or more serious violations (such as speeding 15 miles or more over the limit, reckless driving, leaving the scene of an accident or racing) over a period of two or three years would be cause to reject a candidate. A DUI conviction alone may be reason not to give an employee driving duties. Also be sure to look at individuals' accident histories.

It's a good idea to check out everyone who's going to be driving on company business, whether they're driving a company vehicle or their own. "There's a growing sense that if [employees are] driving on behalf of an employer, there's a responsibility on the employer's part to take action to remove a driver who is known to have a problem," says Jaeger.

Your insurance company may be able to help you develop a policy and screen potential drivers. Lori Denton, 35, owner of Galaxy Fun Raising Inc., a South Daytona, Florida, company that provides casino-themed event planning, says she provides her insurance company with a copy of every job applicant's driver's license so the insurance company can verify the person's driving record. The insurance company, Denton says, has a vested interest in helping her make good hiring decisions in this area.

Jaeger says once drivers are on board, you should consider doing an annual review of their driving records. If you see a potential problem, such as a pattern of tickets, you can address it with discipline, training or even by removing the person from their driving position before something serious occurs.

Religious Rights

When religious practices conflict with workplace rules

You probably know it's illegal to discriminate against someone on the basis of their religion, but did you know that prohibitions against discrimination also cover religious practices, including dress, hairstyle and days of work?

Most lawsuits charging religious discrimination are "accommodation cases, where someone does something in the way of religious observance and the employer doesn't understand it," says Michael Wolf, a Washington, DC, attorney, labor and employment arbitrator, and co-author of Religion in the Workplace: A Comprehensive Guide to Legal Rights and Responsibilities (American Bar Association).

Employers have a duty to "reasonably accommodate" workers' religious practices. They can disregard such accommodation only if doing so would constitute an undue hardship on the business. Although statutes on religious discrimination don't define the term "undue hardship," court decisions have indicated that it includes incurring significant costs, reducing productivity, causing other employees to suffer, endangering workplace safety or creating a violation of public law.

Once an employee notifies management of a conflict between his or her religion and work, steps must be taken to resolve the situation in a way that allows for both sincere religious observation and effective company operations. Most commonly, accommodation takes the form of rearranging work schedules to allow individuals to observe holy days, or rewriting dress and personal-grooming codes to make allowances for employees who wear special clothing or have beards for religious reasons.

Other issues, such as harassment and hostile work environments, are more difficult to define. Employers can be held liable if they're intolerant of employees' religious convictions or if employees are subjected to religious harassment. Courts have found behaviors that contribute to a hostile work environment include improper humor, such as telling jokes about the Holocaust to Jewish employees; daily transmission of prayers over companies' public address systems; and preaching religion in a way that makes employees feel they're targets of conversion attempts. At the same time, employers can't discriminate against employees who proselytize in the workplace if those activities aren't interfering with business or objected to by other employees.

While the legal obligation to accommodate religious practices isn't a particularly onerous one, Wolf says, many business owners don't realize it's an issue they need to be aware of. "They're not paying attention to religious practices; they're looking only at business practices," he says. "If you have a diversified work force, realize this is something you need to pay attention to."

Next Step

To check an applicant's driving record, call your state's department of motor vehicles. It will tell you what the proper procedures and costs are. If you don't have the staff resources to handle this yourself, or if it's necessary to research other states' records, it may be easier to use an information service. To locate one, Deborah Jaeger of TML Information Services Inc. in Forest Hills, New York, suggests doing an Internet search for "motor vehicle records," or asking your state's motor vehicle department for a recommendation. Another option is to contact your insurance company for help.

Contact Sources

Audit Protection Insurance Services Inc., (888) 999-4274

Galaxy Fun Raising Inc., (800) 241-8991, http://www.venturesys.com/galaxy

Hally O'Toole Design, (801) 355-5510, http://www.hallyotoole.com

Michael Wolf, 4532 43rd St. N.W., Washington, DC 20016, wolfdc@erols.com

Peggy Isaacson & Associates, (407) 290-1146, prtprsoff@aol.com

TML Information Services Inc., (800) 743-7891, djaeger@tml.com